African Americans In San Diego And Nationwide Still Have Highest HIV Infection Rate
February 9, 2012 1:36 p.m.
Lisa Cosby, Triage Nurse UC San Diego's Owens Clinic
Acintia Wright, HIV Aids counselor at the San Ysidro Health Center, she is a mother of four who has been living with HIV since 1995
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. According to the centers for disease control, African-Americans are the racial group most affected by the HIV/AIDS virus. African-Americans make up 5% of the San Diego population, but 13% of HIV cases. Community activists says talking about AIDS is helping to bring down those numbers. Here to talk about San Diego's outreach programs and the recent national black HIV/AIDS day are my guests, Lisa Cosby is a triage nurse at UC San Diego's Owens clinic. Welcome.
COSBY: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Acintia Wright is HIV/AIDS council. Welcome to the show.
WRIGHT: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: You have a powerful and personal story about your activism. Would you share it with us?
WRIGHT: Well, in 1995 I was diagnosed with HIV. The in December of 1995. And at that time, I was given I guess a death sentence of seven years. And my whole life changed. I am a mother of four. And at that time, my oldest was 12 turning 13. So I wasn't sure if I was going to live to be able to see my son graduate or my daughters. So my life really took a change. And I was living in the black community then. I'm from the bay area. And we didn't know a lot about HIV. HIV, once it entered into my life, I became very educated on it after about seven months to a year. Because of the way HIV entered into my life, I was drugged and raped by three guys, and two of the guys had full-blown AIDS. At that time there was no way to prove that. At that time it was called a privacy act. Today, a person living with HIV if they infect another person, it is considered premeditated murder. Back then, it was not. I was laughed at. The judge laughed at me, he thought it was a joke. And the people who were there they stuck together and said that I had walked in the room willfully. So being given the diagnosis in 1995 was quite scary. I didn't see any black women standing up saying anything. I didn't know it existed.
CAVANAUGH: How did people react back in those days to the knowledge that you were HIV positive?
WRIGHT: Oh, it was awful. I was teased, my kids were teased, little snickers were going around, don't touch the food, it's all infected. It was horrible. That's what made me become very stigmatized in my community and hide away for a good seven months.
CAVANAUGH: You used to be a preschool teacher?
WRIGHT: And overnight I was an overnight counselor for runaway girls who were pregnant teens.
CAVANAUGH: And did you lose those positions because of your HIV status? The overnight counselor position, yes, I did. Our community is very small. And once the word got out that I was HIV positive, my job went from full-time to being on call to never calling me at all. And through the day, I was a preschool teacher, and I didn't know how HIV was contracted, really, so I didn't want to work around those children, so I quit my job.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, in the early days of the HIV epidemic, and 1995 is is on the cusp of the end of those early days, were those more powerful in the black community?
COSBY: Oh, yes, because of the stigma that went along with HIV. At that time, it was just coming out that it was not a gay man's disease. So it was still considered a gay disease, but not a gay white man's disease. Anyone who was diagnosed at that time, it was assumed they had been in I gay relationship at some point in time. And we didn't hear of no black women being infected with HIV. At least in my community, I did not. So it was very difficult to accept that and to be given a diagnosis of seven years, that was another big stigma, like, oh, my whole life is changing here.
CAVANAUGH: Now, this event changed the course of your life and your career. Give us an idea of your mission now as an HIV/AIDS counselor.
WRIGHT: My job is to make sure I get the word out there, how important it is to know your status. Anyone who had an HIV encounter needs to know their status. I'm a counselor because I'm compassionate. The way my diagnosis was given to me was no compassion, no empathy, so I choose to be different. I come across a lot of people who become HIV positive, and it's devastating still today. People are not -- they're still -- the education is there, but they're not paying attention, I guess, to the education, I don't know if our prevention messages are not strong enough or our education isn't bold enough. I'm not sure what the issue is, but we still need to educate and be as compassionate to people as possible.
CAVANAUGH: Let me bring in Lisa Cosby. I said in the open that we hear the rates of HIV infection are disproportionately higher among African Americans. Does that still hold true, and here in San Diego?
COSBY: Yes, throughout the country and throughout San Diego. We do represent five% of the population in San Diego yet we represent 13% of the HIV and AIDS population. And so yes, it's still.
CAVANAUGH: Do we know why that there is a higher infection rate?
COSBY: I believe that part of the reason why there's still a high infection rate is that the messages is coming across, roots just that if you don't relate it to that message, I don't put myself in that group, if you are a woman who's married and you have a husband and you've been with him for 25 years, and he's been your only partner, you don't see yourself in that group that can contract AIDS or HIV. Even though, anyone who has a sexual encounter can contract HIV.
CAVANAUGH: In doing some research for this segment, there's been a lot of research in the past written about bisexual men in the black community who don't identify as gay being a factor in spreading AIDS to wives and girlfriend. Apparently, some research says that that is not really the case. So do we have -- is it a combination of factors that go in to these high infection rates that persist in the African-American community?
WRIGHT: I can definitely say yes to that. I mean, like you said, you've done your research, and in researching the many who have sex with men who don't identify as being gay, we consider them on the down low, but they -- I can't really say that that's the main issue as to why the rates are continuing on. Women, African-American women as Lisa stated, some are in relationships, and they stay in those relationships, and they feel like they're safe. Their husbands or boyfriend may have been stepping out. Men who come out of jail is another one. They may say oh, I've never had a relationship with a man, but you've been in jail and you may test HIV positive, but they choose to blame the woman. Now we've got these women running around crazy wondering how did this happen to me? Just tested a woman the other day, been in a relationship for ten years, she has full-blown AIDS. It's amazing to me in 2012 that this is still happening.
CAVANAUGH: What is the impact if we know of intravenous drug use does that have a major factor in promoting the infection rate among the black community?
COSBY: I think it has -- I don't know if I would say major, but I do know it play ace role in the infection rate in the black community. All drug -- not just intravenous drug abuse. People who are drug abusers, especially women, will do almost anything for that drug. So then they're having all these different encounters with whoever. They don't know their status or anything about them. And I do think that intravenous drug use Mayes a factor. I also think people use that as a coverup for having sex with men. Because it's more acceptable in the African-American communities to acquire HIV from drug use than it is from having sex with a man.
CAVANAUGH: You know, among the factors that I've been reading about too, factors that affect healthcare in general. If you don't have access to healthcare, if that's difficult for you, if there's high unemployment, if there's poverty in the area, people's health are going to suffer just across the line. What is the connection between the high rate of sexual transmitted diseases and contracting HIV/AIDS?
COSBY: What is the --
CAVANAUGH: A high rate of STDs.
COSBY: Right. Well, it's easier to contract HIV if you have an STD. So the rate goes up astronomically if you have an STD, to contract HIV. As far as for healthcare, yes, it is hard when people -- the problem is that a lot of people don't get tested. I don't think people willing go out and give someone HIV. But they don't get tested because they don't have the funds or they don't want know where to go get tested. That's why me and Cynthia go out into the community to teach and show people where they can get tested. Testing is absolutely free here in San Diego County. And a lot of people don't know they have resources out there that they can go in and see a doctor. In the African-American community, I've done workshops where people were surprised that they could get medication, see a doctor, and not have healthcare because of the care act.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds to me that there's still not a lot of talk that goes around, especially among black women about being at risk for AIDS. Would you agree with that?
WRIGHT: In a sense I do agree. I'm from the bay area, so in the bay area, there's so many groups that I'm a part of, the positive women's network, the world, and bringing all that information back to San Diego I'll looked at like, why? Why are you doing this? Why do you have to say something? I feel it's my charge and my responsibility to mention this in the African-American community. I started one of the first African-American support groups here so we have a place to talk about this in a safe haven. It's not talked about enough for me. We can't talk about it in the schools, we can't talk about it in church. Our job is to go into the churches and build HIV ministries so the ministers can gib to talk about this over the pulpit. We need to make sure this message gets out to the women and let them know we're here for you, you're not alone.
CAVANAUGH: How difficult is it to get the message of safe sex practices and STD and HIV testing in a faith-based community? Do you still find that a hard sell?
COSBY: Yes, in some ways, I do. There are some churches that have been very open coming in and letting people come in and teach their congregation. I've been to maybe three churches in San Diego where I've been able to go in and do workshops, with not just their women, but also with youth. Youth are at high risk also. I feel like my job is to go out and make sure nobody gets HIV. Nobody appointed me -- I just feel like that's what I was called to be. I go out on my own, I'm not really a part of any other group. Our mission is to decrease health disparities in the African-American community. So I go out into the community and I try to teach. Some pastors, they'll let you come in, but they won't give you enough time. They'll give you -- I've been in where they have had, okay, you got 15 minutes. There's no way in 15 minutes that I can adequately teach anyone about HIV. A pastor gave me 15 minutes, I'm going to be going back to his church in a month or so.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: How do you talk about this topic in a way that's effective?
WRIGHT: I just have to be real. I just have to use myself. I just use myself and put myself out there, and hopefully people will get a grasp as to if you do become positive, get yourself into some healthcare, stay on your medications, keep a positive attitude. It's not going to take one person. Of she goes out, I go out, and there's a few others who are with us that go out into the community. But this is a community event. To affect the community, we need to do this together as a unit.
CAVANAUGH: There was an event this week at the Chavez multicultural center.
COSBY: It was a national black HIV/AIDS awareness day. We did it here in San Diego. We were to have a panel. So we did have a panel, and we had a minister, myself, educators, young people from SDSU, it was well-attended. I thought it was very well. We had about 50, close to 60 people.
CAVANAUGH: Now, if someone listening to our program says it is time for me to take control and get my health checked and get myself tested for HIV/AIDS. Where do they go?
WRIGHT: Well, I work at San Ysidro health centers. 286 Euclid Avenue, suite 309.
COSBY: They can go to their primary care doctors or the county on Rosecrans, and the county does free testing also.
CAVANAUGH: Are you hopeful that things will improve?
COSBY: I have to be hopeful. I just can't say this just keep continuing, to continuing to happen. If we weren't hopeful, we wouldn't go out there and do it. So yes, I am very hopeful that with the effort that we put out and the effort --, you know, we had in December world AIDS day, when we stood on four corners in the African -- and did the march and had a candle light vigil, and passed out a lot of information. And that's the only way we're going to be able to do. We have to go into the beauty shops, into the churches, into the community and make people aware. And I think we have to start with the women, because the women take care of the household.
CAVANAUGH: Thanks both of you. It's been a pleasure talking with you.
COSBY: Thank you.
WRIGHT: Thank you.